Salt of the earth
Don’t be afraid of salt, just make sure you use sea salt for its elements and minerals
Salt is so vital to our lives that we have woven it into our language - salary, salacious, salad, soldier - and we have actually fought wars over it. But with sea salt, we’ve gone a little bit further. Processed salt may have influenced our language and lead us into battle, but natural sea salt contains numerous elements, and elements are something we humans have worshipped.
The Elements: the iron in our blood, the hydrogen in a molecule of water, the oxygen in our lungs, also include magnesium, potassium, calcium and a host of others, and all of these elements are present in sea salt.
Elements are created with the power of incredible heat, and heat incredible enough to create an element only happens every ten or so million years, when a star explodes into a supernova. Elements are finite and precious, which is just one reason why we should celebrate sea salt. When sea salt is properly made, it contains over sixty of them, including silver.
Salt, and especially sea salt, is good for you. You may have read that sentence disbelievingly, so perhaps I should write it again. Salt is good for you.
Without salt, you would die. Sodium chloride gives our bodies the ability to digest (from the chloride) and the ability to transport nutrients, transmit nerve impulses and move muscles, including the heart. We need to replace this body seasoning constantly. Without salt we would experience headaches, weakness, nausea and finally death. But we don’t crave salt because we need it, we crave it because we like it.
Too much salt is bad for you, and the way most of us ingest salt is actually through foods like biscuits and factory bread and other processed foods. This salt is bad salt, but a sprinkle of Irish sea salt on some spuds (yes, go on, add a knob of butter!) is definitely good for you.
In Ireland salt was always valued. It was essential as a preservative in the days before mass refrigeration. Before corner shops, neighbours in Ireland used to borrow things from each other and it was said that anything borrowed had to be returned. Anything, that is, except salt. If you asked for salt, it was given as a gift, and not expected to be replaced.
We may have used and shared a lot of it, but salt was never produced in Ireland. That has now changed. There are now three companies in Ireland manufacturing sea salt from the clean waters that surround our island.
Creating salt from Irish sea water is not an easy option, we just don’t have enough sun to evaporate it without putting considerable energy into the process. But whilst we don’t have the sun, we do have the water quality, which is why a company like Atlantic Sea Salt, on the Beara Peninsula of West Cork, are gathering up the Taste awards, and why Achill Island Sea Salt is championed by the chefs of the West.
The process of making sea salt is straightforward. You first collect and filter the seawater, then evaporate it, and voila! sea salt appears as if by magic. You can even do this at home by boiling and boiling until the white sludgy salt appears.
To make an industry out of sea salt, however, is quite another matter. “It’s basically a recipe” says Michael O’Neill of Atlantic Sea Salt. Sea salt should be moist, flaky, should crumble between your fingertips and have an almost blinding white sparkle. To get it at just the right level to create crisp flakes of snow-white salt you need to tweak that recipe, altering time, temperature and technique. Irish Atlantic Sea Salt process their salt at low temperatures in order to retain the precious elements.
The difference between Irish sea salt and ordinary table salt is certainly down to taste, but it is also the difference between a hand-made artisan product and a product packed with anti-caking ingredients, bleaches, ultra refinement, synthetic iodine, and without those precious minerals.
Sea water is a fascinating ingredient (next time you’re at the beach, bring some home and boil spuds in it, the ultimate foraged food). Sea water is actually 98% identical to human blood. The sea minerals that are present in sea salt are easy to digest and remineralise us, while helping to bring out the deeper flavour of food, rather than simply adding a salty taste.
The next time you sprinkle a little sea salt on your food, think of it as star dust.
IRISH SALT PRODUCERS
Achill Island Sea Salt, Marjorie and Kieran O’Malley, Keel, Achill Island, http://www.achillseasalt.ie Very small-scale production, available in a number of outlets in the North West.
Irish Atlantic Sea Salt, Michael and Aileen O’Neill, Cahermore, Beara Peninsula, County Cork www.irishatlanticsalt.ie Widely available in specialist shops throughout Ireland. Also available in a number of flavours.
Oriel Sea Salt, Brian Fitzpatrick, Port Oriel, Clogherhead, Drogheda, County Louth www.orielseasalt.com Newly available to the hospitality and food service industry, distributed by La Rousse Foods.
Steak (fillet, sirloin, strip-loin, T-bone)
Sea salt and black pepper
Brush steak with olive oil. Heat a grill pan until blazing hot. Fry steak for 2-4 minutes depending on thickness (thicker is better).
Shake some sea salt on to a baking tray and grind in some pepper. Turn the steak and cook for 2-4 minutes more. Remove and place on the salt, and turn so both sides are covered. Leave to rest in the salt for 10 minutes.
Return the steak to the pan for one minute per side, brushing off the salt as it cooks. Serve sliced, drizzled with more olive oil and lemon juice.
Salted caramel roast pears
4 tbsp runny honey
generous pinch of salt
2 tbsp granulated sugar
Slice the pears in half, lengthwise. Melt the butter in an oven-proof pan and add the honey, salt and sugar. Toss in the pears and roast for 30 minutes. Serve with blue cheese and chopped walnuts.
Types of salt
Sea salt is evaporated sea water, which by its nature contains essential elements and a deep mineral flavour.
Rock salt is mined salt. In Ireland we mine rock salt for de-icing roads. Rock salt is used to make table salt. No prizes for flavour or complexity, but a hard substance that is good for grinders. At its simplest rock table salt is just processed sodium chloride, but when hand-mined by specialists it gives you products like pink salt – coloured pink because of the algae deposits in the rock.
Grey salt is a coarsely ground natural sea salt harvested by pan evaporation in France. Fleur de sel comes from the same process, but is only taken from the top layer for good quality and colour.
Kosher salt is salt that has no additives and a larger grain size. River salt is harvested in Australia from inland salt lakes, while dead sea salt comes from the Dead Sea.
Essential elements in good salt
Chloride regulates the acid/alkali balance in the body, and is necessary for the production of gastric acid.
Iron is biologically indispensable. It is actually the element that colours our blood red - which has made it the symbol of war, from the planet of Mars.
Sulfur is important for skin, hair and nails.
Magnesium is the main energy source for cell functioning and is necessary for normal muscle contraction.
Potassium stimulates kidney and adrenal functioning, and is important in the biosynthesis of protein.
Calcium builds healthy bones and both Silicon and Manganese help here as well.
Copper supports absorption of iron and vitamin C.